Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year
As the emphasis on shopping, either for presents or for bargains in the sales, reaches fever-pitch, it is interesting to look back on yuletides of previous centuries, when customs, superstitions, and charity were the order of the day.
One perennial theme of certain long-standing customs was that of sharing with the poor. Each season had its own form of almsgiving, and Christmas brought various contributions to either parishioners or servants. On St. Thomas’s Day (21st December), many Shropshire farmers gave a sack of corn (known as the Wheat Dole), to be distributed among the needy. At Clun, a measure of wheat was given for the people and one of barley for their pig.
It is tempting to think of the Shropshire Christmas of the nineteenth century as a simple affair compared to today’s commercialised celebrations, but the customs could be very complex. Pagan rituals combined with Christian traditions, and the holiday from work tended to last for twelve days. The woman of the household had many preparations to make for the big day, from preparing a fatted bullock and baking goose pies, to making vast quantities of mincemeat and Christmas puddings.
In Shrewsbury, ‘wigs’ (caraway buns) dipped in ale were baked to be eaten at Christmas Eve supper. Plum cakes and pikelets were traditional delicacies, and throughout the season farming men were allowed extra beer with their meals. The custom of offering a mince-pie and a glass of wine to each visitor continues to this day; it is still said to bring good luck over the coming year if twelve mince pies are eaten during the twelve days. Over-indulgence, it seems, is not a modern phenomenon.
A great deal of scrubbing and cleaning was required; it is said that each country household supported an elf or a goblin, and that the creature would be angry if all the cleaning was not complete. It was thought unlucky to do washing or spinning during the holiday, so these all had to be completed beforehand. One of the twelve days, 28th December or Innocent’s Day, was thought to be of evil omen, but the rest were filled with celebration. All the household jobs, along with ploughing, could begin again on Plough Monday, the Monday after twelfth night.
Until around 1900, a large prepared yule log was taken in on Christmas Eve. The log, known as the Christmas Brand, was made of a trunk of oak, holly, or crab apple, drawn by horses and then rolled to the hearth. It was bored twice through the middle, and the flames which came through the holes when lit were known as Christmas candles. The lighting was always an occasion for merriment, involving tankards of ale. The embers were raked up into it every night, and it would then burn through the twelve days of Christmas, otherwise bad luck would befall the household.
In Welsh-speaking areas, congregations met in churches or chapels at five or six on Christmas morning and sang carols until daybreak. Christmas day was ‘rung in’ by the bell ringers in some churches. Amongst other churchgoers, there were reports of brawls at Hope Bowdler (circa seventeenth century) between adult carol singers and those from other parishes, possibly due to the fact that it was thought to be a point of honour that visitors drank all the beer that was offered to them !
Look out for more seasonal images and posts on our Facebook and Twitter feeds over the Christmas season!
‘Shropshire Folk-Lore’, Charlotte Burne
‘The Folklore of Shropshire’, Roy Palmer
Shropshire Magazine, December 1970, page 19
Written by KarenY